Arvada, CO, October 22, 2014- I got off of the Greyhound in Portland, Oregon. My cousin, Bev, had come with her son, Zack, to pick me up and head the rest of the way to her place in Buckley, Washington. I’m pretty fond of the Greyhound but this had been a nightmare trip to begin with. They had oversold the bus in San Diego, which resulted in a delayed departure and in missing the departing bus from LA. Me and several other passengers were held in a sort of limbo where they had to figure out how to reroute us and get us seats. Three people in particular stand out. The two people in front of me, a guy and a girl both immediately struck me as fellow wanderers. We wound up telling jokes and stories for most of the trip up the west coast. Were it not for these folks, the trip would have been miserable. We were a full 8 hours late and only getting later by the time I got off in Portland. Add to that the fella who took a seat next to me.
He was a big guy, well over six feet tall, with a young man’s impression of a beard and a Nordic blonde pony tail. He was wearing a dress shirt and tie with the sleeves ripped off. He struck me as an odd individual. He was talking and laughing to himself while writing furiously in a well used spiral bound notebook. Nothing really intelligible left his mouth for most of the trip. The two in front of me were getting a kick out of it because of how crazy he actually was acting. Not one to let a person creep me out too bad, I just included him as much as I could and otherwise enjoyed the conversation and company. She was either going to or from home and school and he was on his way to Oregon to work on a cannabis farm. It was a relief to have a couple folks to talk to. Bus and train rides can be exceedingly boring if there isn’t good company around.
When I finally got to Buckley and crashed, I needed a day or two to get my feet underneath me. Long distance travel can seriously hurt your pockets and your health. I tend to take my time getting acclimated to an area for a few days to begin with and Washington was no different. Buckley sits southeast of Seattle, not far from Mt. Rainier. I woke up the next morning and saw Mt. Rainier for the first of many times from different places. I had been doing a little bit of “homework” on the camping and hiking in the area and had my sights set on the Wonderland Trail, a 90 mile trek around the mountain. I had all the time in the world, just no camping gear.
I surprised my Aunt Evelyn at her house in Eatonville later that day. I wound up having two headquarters from which to work from while I was there, one at Aunt Evelyn’s place and another at Bev’s. Buckley has about two more stoplights than the area in Eatonville and easily a dozen more restaurants and pubs, so I decided to immediately try to find as much kitchen work as I could. There were a few places in the area hiring and I have been known to do pretty well with kitchen jobs. Much to my dismay, a week went by without anything. Much to my delight, that left me free to hike around Buckley. There was a trail that passed right through town and terminated at the White River.
I got out and got my first taste of Washington wilderness. It wasn’t much, only a mile or so outside of town but it was pretty breathtaking despite its small scope compared to some of the Evergreen state. There wasn’t too much for wildlife that close to town but I did run into some frogs and snakes down along the White River, there was sign for both deer and elk and I caught a couple of good looks at some Bald Eagles. There were also endless supplies of blackberries everywhere Those first hikes were pretty simple but they opened my eyes to how different the outdoors are in Washington.
As my cousin and her boyfriend both have day jobs and her son had school, I started to gravitate more out to Aunt Evelyn’s place. Bev’s daughter Emmaley stayed out there but was gone most of the time, which left me and Evelyn (retired) all the time in the world to get to know each other. Some of the family was a bit worried as my religious and political opinions stray pretty far out into left field and she did the same out in right field. It definitely provided me with all of the conversation and debate that I could handle, in a good way.
We took a day trip out to Paradise, in Mt. Rainier National Park. It’s the highest point you can drive to in the park and it’s packed with climbers during the summer months. I took a short hike for about an hour and a half, down the mountain. It was mind boggling. There was a lot of foot traffic due to the accessibility of the area but I still got some pretty cool pictures and got to see some of the sweeping landscapes that dominate every corner of the skyline there. I saw what I thought could be an elk in a meadow but it was too far to actually tell. It could have been a mule deer but it seemed too large at the time.
At about that same time two things happened. I planned out a day long hike from Paradise to Longmire, near one of the entrances to the park and I applied for work at the state fair. Both of them succeeded far beyond what I would have imagined. The hike was incredible. I saw enough to understand that I wanted to see more. There were waterfalls, deer, eagles and more trees and plants than I’ve ever seen before. Everything was so different from what I’m used to that it was like walking around on a different planet.
I interviewed for a job with a concessions company for a position grilling in a burger booth and after I was hired, I had a couple of weeks to burn. I did a little fundraising and went shopping for some camping essentials. I had given up on the Wonderland Trail but was told that if I had an “open mind” about where I hiked at, that the Park Rangers could put me on some great places. I showed up at the Longmire office on a Sunday and had my permit to start a 6 day trip into the park on the next day. Apparently, this was pretty lucky of me. I ran into people who had to plan for months to get the available campsites.
I was going to do the Northern Loop Trail, a 45 mile trek through some of the park’s most pristine wilderness on the northeastern quarter of the park. I had no idea what I was in for. It seemed a little bit on the ambitious side to do this trip without my camping gear that was left in storage in NC. I had a tarp, a sleeping bag, some clean clothes and some food. It was a pretty primitive set-up for a week long camping trip but it was one of those moments where I either had to go with what I had or wait another year for the opportunity to come back through.
Looking back, I was woefully underprepared for the whole trip. I didn’t have any knowledge about what the trail was like as far as terrain and elevation changes and I was relying on my ability to boil water with a sterno stove for anything to drink. The first day almost finished me. Because I was taking a clockwise direction on the trail, I was facing some of the toughest elevation changes at the worst times. I had to hike 6 miles and some change before I crossed the Carbon River at the base of Chenuis Mountain. Once I had done that, I realized how imposing hiking in the mountains can be. The remaining 4 miles were all uphill on a switchback trail up the mountain.
I have never claimed to be in great shape but at this point, my smoking had stopped (unfortunately, not for good) and I have been walking fair distances pretty regularly all year long. That afternoon pushed me beyond anything I’ve encountered outside of the conditioning we used to do for wrestling at Dixon High. I had hiked the initial 6 miles in less than a couple of hours that morning. I had lunch and headed up the mountain at around noon. The last 4 miles took the rest of the day. I had a pack that weighed around 45lbs and I must have stopped to huff and puff at least 3 dozen times. It was a grueling, non-stop uphill battle with myself. I considered turning around and calling for a ride more than once and had I not made good time up the mountain initially, I probably would have. The prospect of having crossed the midway point for the day was literally the only thing that stopped me. There is a total elevation gain of 9000 feet on the Northern Loop Trail and once you get above 5000 feet the air starts to thin out.
I ran out of water about halfway up the mountain. As I started to enter the initial stages of dehydration, I began to question whether or not I would be alright for the next 5 days. After a little while of trudging through the discomfort, I found that I had set a pace that seemed to work for me and I busted out a mile or so in the next hour. I really began to feel the affects of not having water, so I found a stream, filled a pot and brought it to a boil. I drank it while it was still hot and despite not being the best water break I’ve ever had, it got me to my first campsite of the week at Yellowstone Cliffs. I was so wore out when I got there that I didn’t bother with setting up the tarp, I just laid it on the ground, spread out my sleeping bag, ate, drank a whole mess of water and slept like a log.
I woke up the next day when I felt what seemed to be someone tapping me on the head and moving my hair around with a finger. I remembered that I was alone and jerked awake to find that a chipmunk had been rooting around in my hair. I’m still not entirely sure who was more startled by the eye contact from within a foot, me or the chipmunk, but it definitely did the trick for waking me up. The sun had yet to slip over the horizon and the mountains so I brewed up some instant coffee, had breakfast, packed my bags and hit the trail. The Yellowstone Cliffs were bordered by an incredible bunch of meadows and stands of trees and as I made my way back to the trail from camp, I saw a big black-tailed mule deer crossing the trail. I got quiet and pulled my camera out but missed the opportunity.
Once I started to bust out some of the trail, my eyes caught something in the meadow that crept up the mountainside. It was just a brown shape at first but once I took some pictures and got the binoculars out, I realized that I was looking at my first black bear in Washington. I couldn’t make out too much detail as it was a good distance away so I took the opportunity to continue on. That’s when I realized that the area the bear was in was where the trail switched up the mountain side. I spent about half an hour cautiously picking my way forward hoping that the bear wasn’t interested in me or my food.
Less than a mile later, in a similar meadow, I had another bear encounter. This time it was a female and two cubs from about 250 yards away. It was incredible to pull out the binoculars and watch them. The cubs were very seriously at play with each other and the mother was ambling along, grazing on the berries and flowers that covered the meadows at that altitude. I probably spent half an hour watching them and trying to get decent pictures. The problem was that the lens I was using wouldn’t zoom in close enough for my tastes. I cursed my luck at not having a better lens and moved on.
The trail continued upward and onward over the mountain and I was confronted with the sort of panoramic vistas that you see on postcards and in movies. Here it was, the end of August and I was looking at snow on slopes that bordered some of the clearest mountain ponds around. It was unbelievable that I was above the snow line but the proof was right there in front of me. I was unsure of how the trail proceeded and I didn’t want to be faced with another night where I was rushed to make camp, so I didn’t waste too much time. The morning was still young and I had a decent hike ahead of me still. As the trail started to slope down the other side of the mountain, my pace picked up and I ran into a Park Ranger. She checked my permits and I gave her a heads up to the four bear that she was heading towards.
Just before I got to Lake James, I came over a little hillside into a gully that hid a good sized creek. There was the trail on one side and a rock face on the other. As I looked around, I noticed two little black shapes scurrying up the rock face. Upon closer inspection, it was two more bear cubs. That’s when the mother and I locked eyes. She was no more than thirty feet away. She did a mock charge that consisted of her shortening the distance between us by about 6 feet. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done not to scream and run. Instead I followed the advice I had heard so many times and started yelling at her and waving my arms around.
An angry bear makes all sorts of noises but the two that stand out in particular were chilling. The classic bear “moan” and a chuffing sound, like when a dog sneezes but much louder and bigger, had me close to running again. Instead, I started slowly walking forward on the trail and the bear began to back off. Much to my relief, she backed up to the rock wall and followed where her cubs had disappeared to, climbing up into the trees above. The post adrenaline surge started to show itself the farther along I got away from her. That’s when I had the clarity of mind to grab my camera and get a couple of pictures before she disappeared entirely.
I got to Lake James before I slowed my pace and caught my breath. I sat down and had lunch and wrote down some details about the bear so that I wouldn’t forget and also so that I could shake the nerves that still had me reeling. It’s fun to talk about and think about but when you’re confronted with actual dangerous situations, the buzz can last for the rest of the day and I didn’t want to be preoccupied while hiking in a place where it’s conceivable that one missed step could wind up in a huge emergency. That night, I didn’t waste any time eating so that I could hang my food and put up the tarp. There were more bears in the campsites and the last thing I wanted was to wind up any closer to a bear than I already had been.
The third day of hiking was pretty uneventful. Some old knee injuries from my time as an offensive lineman started to act up on the downhill parts of the hike and it wound up being pretty excruciating by the end of the day. The wildlife was hiding from me but the mountain finally showed itself to me in its entirety. People spend a lot of time saying things like, “I would love to see something like that!” I spent about an hour on top of an adjacent mountaintop actually doing it. I stared at Mt. Rainier, an active volcano, and it seemed to stare back at me. I felt pretty small at that point and then I started to hear a low rumble. It was a very low noise that I could barely discern and before I knew it, I was starting to look for emergency routes off the mountain and back toward the nearest road, which was almost 20 miles away. That’s when I realized that it was a low flying airplane, not an imminent volcanic eruption. Hiking alone can make you paranoid, apparently. My knee was killing me, so I hurried along and made camp, took some ibuprofen, had some food and hit the sack.
It was a short day and an early night and the next day started just before sunrise. I found a way to make the downhill bits less painful and actually made really good time uphill all morning. There was a super eerie amount of cloud cover/fog on the ground all morning. I didn’t think I would actually see the sun that day but it did eventually burn its way through. I should make mention here that there is an abundance of wildlife in Mt. Rainier that isn’t really rivaled by anything else in the continental United States that I’ve seen. There are birds, squirrels and chipmunks everywhere. Deer and Elk are apparent in huge numbers. I saw seven bears in one day. I had sighted eagles, a weasel, a marmot, pikas, voles and even some snakes and frogs. As I made it to the top of the second mountain and took in the scope of the view, I saw a little group of mountain goats. They were pretty cool characters and even stuck it out with me taking pictures and hollering at them for attention.
I made it to the Mystic Lake Camp and set up shop for the evening. When I woke in the morning, I packed and hit the trail after having some breakfast. I can’t tell you enough how incredible it is to come across huge waterfalls but it pales in comparison to the first view I got of a glacier. At first, I thought it was just a barren ridge of stone or dirt but then it became apparent that it was crumbling on the edges and feeding a river. It’s like nothing else in the world to stand before a frozen river. The last night I was there was a good one. I ate a good bit and had a lot of water. I had been worried about how much sterno fuel I would have but since I only had one more day of hiking, I let it rip for a big, hot dinner.
The last day of hiking was a long one but it was all downhill and went much fast than I had anticipated. I actually beat my ride back to civilization by about 6 hours so I decided to do some hiking through the rainforest that sits in the Carbon River Valley. It amazes me that there can be so much diversity of ecosystems and habitats in such a small area. I wound up back at Aunt Evelyn’s house that night and had a great dinner and hot shower before a great night’s sleep.
The next day, I took a trip out to Tacoma where I found Point Defiance Park and immediately started another day hike. I wound up following the beach around the tip of the peninsula and found a group of harbor seals that weren’t interested in being friends with me and some deer that were a little more acclimated to people than the ones in Mt. Ranier National Park. I slept good again and then took the train into Seattle for the first time.
Seattle has to be seen to be believed and I started work the next day so I wanted to get as much in as possible. My blitz through the city started on the waterfront art park and took me all the way to CenturyLink Field where the first NFL game of the regular season was set to kick off. Fresh feelings about the incredible Super Bowl win from last year, set Seattle on a path that ended with hundreds of thousands of Seahawk fans in the streets. Soundgarden performed a free concert that afternoon before kick off and I got the chance to catch a great Seattle band in the streets of the city itself.
The Puyallup State Fair started the Friday after that and so did my shifts on the grill for Monster Burgers, the self-proclaimed “biggest burger at the fair.” It’s a half pound behemoth that is cooked to death, as per Fairgrounds policy. It hurt my heart to cook beef to well done but it had to be done. People drive from hundreds and hundreds of miles away to get to this particular fair and the vendors and concessions do their best to make it worth the trip. You can get anything from Scones to “Deep-Fried Butter” and you can catch musical acts like Toby Keith, Florida/Georgia Line or Fall Out Boy.
The work was hot, greasy, long and sucked. It’s never fun to stand on top of a commercial gas grill for 13 hour days. The upside was that I got out of the house and around some people. I did my best to maintain an obnoxiously happy mind set and settled in for two and a half weeks of grilling burgers. It went by much faster than I imagined it would and I wound up missing the folks that I worked with once it was over. The people watching was unlike anything I’ve ever seen and I had some great insight into how people act. As a whole, I’ve never felt more disrespected or dismissed by a customer in my life. I’d like to take this opportunity to let everyone in on a secret…those people who are working that type of event deserve to be treated as people and not like second-hand citizens of some disreputable caste of unwanted humanity. Nobody is forcing them to be there, nor are they being coerced into buying expensive food and novelties. As a general rule, people were impatient, rude and not very understanding of the reality of serving thousands of burgers a day. It was a real eye opener. To their credit, most of my fellow employees took it in stride pretty well but I can assure you that if I had more interaction with the customers, I probably would have been fired for talking trash.
My time in Washington was drawing to a close after the fair. I had a few more weeks to burn and I took in a little bit more of the state. I had another day in Seattle and took a trip out to Mt. St. Helens. The eruption of Mt. St. Helens was one of the best documented volcanic eruptions of recent history and the devastating after effects are still easily visible. The explosion shot most of it’s force laterally out of the mountain and has left a huge gap in the crater on the mountain top. The state went in and replanted a lot of the trees but there are still huge areas of sterile ground that don’t support any kind of plant life.
Once I was paid from the fair, I bought a one way ticket back to Colorado and started to pack my bags. I picked up a cheap guitar to replace the one I had to retire and named her Candi. My bus left at 8am on a Tuesday and I was due to arrive in Denver at 6pm the next day. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe that I crammed in as much as I did in the Evergreen State. My job at the fair is secure for next year and I am pretty confident that this isn’t the last that Washington, Mt. Rainier and Seattle have seen of me.